Didion tells us that keepers of private notebooks are lonely and nervous children who were afflicted at birth At such a young age, Didion could not stop whining, so her mother decided to give her a notebook in which she could amuse herself by writing down the thoughts that came to her mind. Her first entry at the age of five is about a woman trapped in two different worlds waiting for death to come get her. Somehow Didion has been afflicted at such a young age that she sometimes envies reality but does not possess it, thus causing her to keep a notebook based upon lies.

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But we start with Montaigne and Sei Shonagon. The forebears make an indelible impression on new essayists: last week, I saw a student poring over the giveaway books outside the English department.

The essay reads the way I imagine Didion herself speaks, starting smack in the middle of a thought. Starting in the middle of a thought is pleasantly disruptive for a reader studying the craft of writing.

We discuss the value of the technique, the way it works here, and how a mis en scene technique can fail in lesser hands. This is the role our notebooks must take in our lives, too. Students new to creative nonfiction invariably wrestle with the concept of telling their own truths, and are either unsettled or relieved by the idea that how and why we remember an occurrence is not the same as a factual record of that same occurrence.

Our notebooks combined with our research are the elements we use to create the blend that begins the first drafts of our creative nonfiction. Against this inquiry, and given time to write, they open up, look inside, meet themselves coming round again. Creative nonfiction, unlike traditional journalism, is made in part of the passage of time. What, I ask students, is a physical element that you remember, that no longer fits? I was more than surprised — I was alarmed.

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On Keeping a Notebook

I always find this stance curious as the habit of keeping a notebook is common amongst exceptional people who not only take the time to report their struggles and feelings but also review them across time. Written long ago, the s I think, the essay is still relevant today. In fact, you could make an argument that in the world of blogging and twitter, the essay is more relevant than ever. In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember?


Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

If you purchase through an affiliate link, I may get a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for visiting! And I knew then I wanted to read her, and about her. But it took many years and this short story reading challenge before I got to reading something by Joan Didion.

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